The gloves came off in public unexpectedly yesterday morning during a meeting of Asean foreign ministers as the spiralling spat between Japan and South Korea drew tense exchanges on the floor.
Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, however, came away somewhat cheered by the candid talk.
"People were not just hiding behind scripts and preconceived positions, but really explaining their position, expressing their concerns, and then looking for solutions," he told Singapore reporters as the Asean foreign ministers' set of annual meetings with their regional counterparts neared the close. While resolutions are still elusive, "these conversations are essential, and I am very happy to see that they occurred in an Asean context", he said.
In her opening remarks yesterday at the latest instalment of an annual meeting among foreign ministers from Asean, China, Japan and South Korea, Seoul's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that she was "gravely concerned" by the Japanese decision earlier in the day to remove South Korea from a "white list" of countries with preferential trade status, calling it "unilateral and arbitrary".
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono replied that he did not see any grounds for complaint given that it was Japan's prerogative to maintain effective control over the export of sensitive goods.
Away from Centara Grand and Bangkok Convention Centre, the venue of the Asean talks, a series of six small blasts occurred around Bangkok in what appeared to be an attempt to embarrass Thai Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha's newly formed government. Four people were hurt.
At the Siam Society in the capital, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took aim at Beijing while delivering a speech on American economic engagement with the region. He urged countries to lean towards US-supported, private-sector-led development, alluding that it was superior to the Chinese-government-driven model under the Belt and Road Initiative.
Be prepared for rough weather amid trade row: Vivian
BANGKOK • With the US-China trade war far from over, Singapore needs to be prepared, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.
"We have to be careful, we have to be prepared, we have to anticipate some rough weather," he told reporters on the sidelines of the Asean foreign ministers and related meetings.
"We have to double down on restructuring our economy. We have to make our companies more competitive. We have to equip Singaporeans with the skills and the capabilities that will be in demand in the new economy," he said.
"And we have got to accelerate this process. We cannot afford to go slow. We cannot afford to be complacent or to take things for granted."
Singapore, he said, is working hard both at the domestic level to restructure its economy and also on the international stage to ensure its voice is heard. "Let's be quietly confident that we have what it takes to make these adjustments in perhaps some very volatile times."
The United States' decision to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods does not affect only China, he stressed.
"It really affects global supply chains, and Singapore, we are part of those global supply chains. So, if you have more friction, more sand, in the global economy, we will be affected," he said.
The threat of bifurcating technological systems is also a major threat. "It is not just trade, but even technology itself, and the way the world in the past four or five decades has been able to create inter-operable technology stacks. If that is fractured, it has profound implications," he said.
This will again act to slow down growth rates.
Singapore is speeding up internal reform and upda-ting skills and its education system.
"We are on the right track, but just be prepared," he said.
Meanwhile, the Singapore brand still resonates within Asean and beyond, said Dr Balakrishnan. "I think from Asean's perspective, and even from Singapore's perspective, people, even big powers on opposite sides, still trust us.
"They know when we say something, we mean it. We are not anybody's vassal state or anybody's proxy. We say what we believe because we believe that this is for the long-term good of the region and of the world."
This credibility has been built up over generations, he said. "Even now, back home, as we talk about generational change in leadership, we need to maintain this reservoir of credibility and trust. This Singapore brand is very, very precious."
Tan Hui Yee
Speaking to Singapore reporters, Dr Balakrishnan said he stressed to his regional counterparts the need to develop a "greater, deeper reservoir of strategic trust within Asia".
"From time to time, there will be problems, bilateral or regional," he said. "But you do need to build up strategic trust, particularly when times are good, so that when you run into problems like this, there is enough trust, enough knowledge on each other's core positions, in order to find a solution."
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was absent from this year's Asean meetings despite attending those in Singapore and the Philippines previously.
Just prior to the Bangkok meeting, nuclear-armed Pyongyang tested several missiles in an apparent warning against US-South Korean military exercises.
"This is, I believe, is DPRK's way of getting attention, reminding the world that they want to have a say, and you can't get a resolution without their active participation. But I would also not overreact to it," Dr Balakrishnan said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
North Korean leaders are "very careful calculators", he said. "Yes, they want to provoke, or they want to make a point, but I think they are also very careful not to go too far," he added. "And similarly, if you look at the response, in the case of the United States, I think you see good restraint being emphasised…by the United States."
STRATEGIC TRUST IS KEY
From time to time, there will be problems, bilateral or regional. But you do need to build up strategic trust, particularly when times are good, so that when you run into problems like this, there is enough trust, enough knowledge on each other's core positions, in order to find a solution.
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN
Asean foreign ministers yesterday also released a statement on the illegal transboundary movement of hazardous waste and other waste in South-east Asia. Countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have pushed back against illicit waste imports after Beijing upended the global waste recycling industry by banning the import of most plastic as well as other waste last year.
"We rejected the illegal transboundary movement of waste to our region, and emphasised that all states take necessary measures to ensure the environmentally sound management of hazardous waste and chemical waste in their respective jurisdictions," said the statement.